Trigger Words to Avoid

September 8, 2021


Words are powerful—and trigger words can be the most powerful of all. Trigger words can make us feel happy or sad … angry or calm … hurt or confident. They can start arguments—or end them. Trigger words set off strong emotions in listeners. Look at the following trigger words and phrases that push our buttons—along with suggestions for what you should say instead to deescalate tensions these words may cause.

Trigger word: You
“Why do you act like that?” “You never listen to me.” “You’re always late.” When said judgmentally, you can hurt enormously. The speaker is blaming the listener, who likely feels hurt and embarrassed.

Better responses: Use “I" to take responsibility for your feelings. "I get upset when you move up a deadline without explaining why." "I feel like you don’t understand what I’m trying to say. I’d like another chance to explain.”   

Trigger words: should, must, shouldn’t
“You must finish this today.” “You should try harder.” “You shouldn’t say those things.” Anyone hearing these words will feel resentful, because they’re being ordered around.

Better responses:
“The deadline for the report is today; how can I help you finish it on time?” “I’d like your advice on how to approach this problem.” “Would you help me understand what you meant? Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted what you said.” Phrases like these show others that you’re on their side.

Trigger phrases: "I'm sorry if..." “I’m sorry but…” 
"If" and “but” negate an apology. They place the blame on the offended person and indicate that the speaker is not sorry. “If” and “but” will make the person you’re supposedly apologizing to feel even more hurt and angry.

Better responses:
“I’m sorry; I really screwed up.” “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings." “I’m sorry you interpreted what I said as a criticism; I didn’t mean it that way.” A sincere apology, one in which we take responsibility for our words or actions, is powerful and placating.

Trigger phrases: "I don't care" "You decide.”
You may think you’re being “nice,” but the other person may feel resentful at being made to choose for you. Or you may strongly disagree with your counterpart’s decision.  

Better responses:
Before answering, ask for time to consider what you’d prefer. “Give me a few minutes to think about what I’d like.” “I’d rather see movie X than movie Y.” If the other person disagrees, talk it out to find a compromise, with fewer hurt feelings.

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